Guilty Plea in Empress of The North Pollution Case

image002Today, Juneau District Court Judge Keith Levy sentenced American West Steamboat Company, LLC for violating a Alaskan state criminal law that makes polluting state waters illegal.  The charge arose out of the May 2007 grounding of the Empress of the North.

Judge Levy ordered the company to pay a $200,000 fine and serve 18 months of probation, with the condition that it not violate any more laws, including any environmental laws and regulations, and abide by its Safety Management System and Fleet Instructions.  Judge Levy suspended $150,000 of the fine.  The remaining $50,000 will be deposited into the state’s General Fund and credited to the Oil and Hazardous Substance Release Prevention and Mitigation Account.  The legislature created the Mitigation Account to provide funds to investigate, contain, and clean up spills of oil and other hazardous substances and to protect human health and the environment.

American West Steamboat Company operated the Empress in Alaska waters during the 2007 summer tourist season.  On May 14, 2007, the Empress struck Rocky Island as it negotiated a turn from Lynn Canal into Icy Strait.  Rocky Island, about 20 miles southwest of Juneau, is charted and marked by a navigation beacon.  The allision punctured the hull of the vessel and caused it to drift and then ground on Hanus Reef.  (Image above).

The Empress crew, Coast Guard and Good Samaritan responders transferred all 200-plus passengers to other vessels.  (Image 2).   No one was hurt.  Had anyone fallen into the water during the allision or the transfer to other ships, they could have sustained significant injuries.  The Coast Guard described the accident in a subsequent letter to American West Steamboat Company as “the most significant marine casualty in Southeast Alaska this [2007] summer” because it “imperil[ed] hundreds of lives and threaten[ed] pristine waterways just miles from the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park.”

The Empress was under the command of Captain Dale Orgain.  Captain Orgain assigned Third Mate Marino Cacciotti to stand the nighttime watch between Skagway and Glacier Bay.  Cacciotti was brand new to the Empress and to Alaska waters.

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Coast Guard regulations require that a watch officer must have observed or stood watch from the wheelhouse on the route he’s working at least four times, one of those at night, before he is qualified to be in charge of the watch.  This was Cacciotti’s first time in these waters in any capacity, other than as a tourist.  He had never stood watch while the Empress was underway, and he was not familiar with how the Empress turned or handled.  Captain Orgain assigned Cacciotti to stand watch anyway.

Under Alaska law, it is illegal to pollute waters of the state.  This offense is a class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and a year in jail for individuals and a $200,000 fine for business organizations.  Organizations are liable for the criminal acts of their agents acting within the scope of their employment and for the benefit of the organization.

Assistant Attorney General Daniel Cheyette of the Alaska Department of Law, Criminal Division, Office of Special Prosecutions, prosecuted the charges.  The National Safety Transportation Board also investigated the grounding.  The Board’s report can be viewed at http://www.ntsb.gov.

For further information, contact Assistant Attorney General Cheyette at (907) 269-6250.